With chaotic war zones arising all over the Middle East amidst widespread constitutional violations of illegal spying by the United States Government, the War On Terror has left incredulous citizens wondering if the world actually is actually a safer place. A film like Zero Dark Thirty illustrates the conflicted nature of bringing peace through violence and torture, but ultimately justifying the cause (in a narrative sense) by killing the big bad, Osama bin Laden. Yet, between Iraq, Syria and Gaza, we’ve only seen the violence and turmoil increase since Osama’s death. I’m not saying killing bin Laden wasn’t justified, but that killing bin Laden wasn’t the solution to making the world a safer place. But rather, American intervention and the resulting violations of human rights sanctioned by Congress via the Patriot Act have created the tumultuous world that we live in today.
Based on John le Carré’s 2008 novel of the same name, A Most Wanted Man puts us in the middle of the convoluted world of post-9/11 espionage. Although the mission is distinctly American, we follow a small off-the-grid division of the UK’s MI-6 (the British CIA), as they pursue a wanted terrorist in Hamburg, Germany. Of course, finding the half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim known as Issa Karpov played by Grigoriy Dobrygin is just impetus for untangling the complicated web of international interests and deceit that accompanies such shadowy diplomacy.
In the broad scheme of history, A Most Wanted Man will be analyzed for its fictionalized representation of the War On Terror that’s still shaping our world today, but as a Hollywood film, it will be remembered as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s final leading role. Though never considered a “leading man” that opened blockbuster hits, Hoffman had reached the top of the acting echelon. With an Oscar to his name for portraying Truman Capote and a prolific body of work that would rival any contemporary actor, the end of his masterful career is a solemn one. Here, Hoffman portrays Gunter Bachmann, a maligned British spy, whose tunnel vision has him devoted to his work rooting out international terrorism. Despite Hoffman’s amazing range as an actor, he’s an odd choice to play the British operative. His steadfast commitment to the manhunt is implicitly rooted in a past failure in Beirut, but Hoffman’s failed attempt at a British accent makes the character feel out of place. Unlike our Hollywood notion of a suave British spy, Gunter gets down and dirty with surveillance, intimidation, and political manipulation. While the minute-by-minute task mastering of espionage has its thrills, A Most Wanted Man is far more concerned with the execution of getting its target than exposing its morally dubious characters.
It does not take Gunter long to track down Issa in Hamburg, which should be a victory on its own according to the higher-up diplomats. However, Gunter sees Issa as just the small fish to catch the barracuda and the barracuda to catch the shark; a loose metaphor he uses to convince the American, Martha Sullivan played by Robin Wright, to let him continue to operate. Following the low-level street thug to catch the kingpin is a tried and true plot device in mystery-thrillers, but Issa’s murky past and mysterious motives makes him a tragic target. When we delve into the complications of Issa’s past connections and current situation, we’re forced to ask ourselves thought provoking questions regarding war and terrorism. However, we spend far too much of our time on the nitty gritty pursuit of the target. Sure, these characters are realistically pre-occupied with the task at hand, but it’s the fleeting moments of humanity when they’re forced to acknowledge, albeit implicitly, their morally unsound actions. Both Wright and Hoffman proclaim they do what they do in order to make the world a safer place, but do they really believe in their own cause?
I believe that this is the type of moral dilemma that characters in great films about war have to deal with. Rick in Casablanca and the Algerians in The Battle Of Algiers fill the area between right and wrong with the grey area that we try to ignore in real life. A Most Wanted Man is too preoccupied with its manhunt to explore that grey area in a meaningful way. I’m sad for Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s final bow to be underutilized on an unspectacular thriller that aims to be much more.